As allegations of sexual exploitation have rocked two major Christian sect churches in Kerala, churchgoers are feeling dejected; and reformists point out that only bringing in democracy can save the church now.
Father MS Yuhanon Ramban, a lecturer at the Orthodox Theological Seminary in Kerala, points to lack of democracy in the church administration and the clergy system.
“Currently, women do not have a safe democratic place, even in church, to share their woes. Priests and the system have the final word. If this undemocratic system doesn’t change, such exploitation is only likely to continue,” said Fr Yuhanon.
He also points out that churches generally do not allow women to enjoy voting rights.
“If a layman is given power and has a significant say in the system, transparency can be ensured, democratic values can be upheld and churches can act in its true sense for the benefit of believers,” said Fr Yuhanon, who says that the enaction of Church Act can resolve such issues to an extent.
A Kerala Christian Church Properties and Institutions Trust Bill (Church Act) was formed in 2009. But it is still pending with the Kerala Law Reforms Committee.
The Church Act was proposed by the Law Reforms Commission, headed by the late VR Krishna Iyer, former judge of the Supreme Court of India, to ensure democracy, transparency and layman’s participation in church’s administration and system.
Meanwhile, Jomon Puthenpurackal, a human rights activist who fought the sister Abhaya case for the last 26 years, said that only speedy trial and punitive actions can avoid such sexual exploitations.
"Thanks to social media and news outlets, people are being vocal. Hence, nobody can hush up cases like they did in the past, even with money and political power," said Jomon, adding, "I also strongly feel that courts, police and government machinery must act timely and punish the culprits. Only punishments will instill fear among these abusers and stop them from committing crimes.”
What believers think
While media and police probe are revealing the cracks in the shields of the two sects, believers say that all the Christian sects in India have lost their true essence of spirituality and its primary objective of serving the poor.
Bino PP, a Malankara Orthodox church believer, notes, "Many in the clergy system are in the race of amassing more money and power. It seems that money and power give them relief than prayers. They have forgotten service and instead resort to exploitation.”
Boris Paul, an advocate and church reformer in Kerala, said that from the ancient times, believers are indoctrinated to not question the priests and such teachings can lead to unpleasant situations.
“We are taught to listen and obey. Questioning a priest is considered a sin,” said Boris.
Being a semitic religion, Christianity has an upper hand on its believers. Those who question or disobey the priests and the clergy system can be expelled from the church without any explanation.
A few weeks ago, a believer from Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church sect approached the higher authorities in the clergy system, claiming that five priests had ‘misused’ his wife’s ‘confession secrets’ and have sexually exploited her.
Meanwhile, in a different incident, a bishop with Syro Malabar Catholic church has also came under fire for reportedly raping a nun for 13 times since 2014.
Both incidents, widely debated in offline and online media, have revealed chinks in the churches' armour.